Bikram Yoga Memphis, the studio closest to my mother's home in Tupelo, Mississippi, is cruelly located a few doors down from Muddy's Bake Shop, which some consider the best cupcake pusher in the city. For the first seven of the 60 days, my goal is twofold: Stay out of Muddy's and do not throw up in class.
On day one, BYM founder Lori Givens stands up front, on a carpeted podium. The goal for beginners, she says, is just to stay in the room, to learn to breathe. "Feet together, heels and toes touching, let's begin," she says. In a Bikram studio, only the teacher speaks, delivering Choudhury's almost incessant and incantatory instructions. Class takes place in a large, rectangular studio with thin carpeting and a floor-to-ceiling mirror on one long wall. The lights—so bright. They are, in fact, fluorescent. In the mirror, I look not only gargantuan but also slightly green.
This essential setup can be found in every Bikram yoga studio from Memphis to Jakarta, on the theory that the more minimalist and standardized the practice, the deeper the potential for focused hard work. "If you want a dark room and incense, go find another yoga—we don't do that," teacher and BYM co-owner and codirector Gregg Williams tells us one day. "Bikram wants the room bright so you can see yourself." The idea is to meet your own eyes as you move through the postures—to develop a relationship with your mirrored self and start being kind to her.
Although Lori and her instructors continually refer to Bikram as basic, nothing about it feels basic to me as day after day I blunder through 26 postures and two breathing exercises, including physical impersonations of a rabbit, a camel, a perfect human bridge, a flower petal blooming, an eagle, a cobra, a corpse, a triangle, a pearl necklace, and more. My body simply won't bend. My breath is so loud, I'm attracting attention, and I truly worry that I'll pass out. Even lying in savasana—flat on my back with my arms by my side—feels strenuous, because my heels won't touch and the junk in my trunk puts a pinching arch in my back. Obviously, this is going to be a little more complicated than sweating some, stretching some, and—voilà!—solace and skinny jeans.
But it's not only the extra weight that interferes; my brain never shuts up: "My bra's too tight. My ponytail's too high. This carpet stinks. Is that cellulite on my biceps? I'm thirsty. Maybe it'll rain today. Why does everybody in here have a tattoo? Do I need a tattoo? If I got a tattoo, what would it look like and where would I put it? I might be having a heart attack. I'm exhausted—I'm done with this posture. I'm gonna bake me some chicken tonight."
Next: The most important instruction of all